Why you should use a writing calculator

Word count: 750

Reading time: 3 minutes

Many of the writers I know find math intimidating. I think it is, too. But that doesn’t stop me from using it!

I passed math 11 only by promising to never, ever, take math again. At the time, I thought it was a trick question!

After seeing two of my kids struggle with learning disabilities, I now think I have dyscalculia. Regardless, I do an awful lot of basic arithmetic (with a calculator) for my writing and I think you might benefit from doing some too. Why? The main reason is that words are countable, of course. This turns them into objects that can be measured, like jelly beans or apples or pennies. And the act of measuring helps give you, the writer, more control.

Just as I will never hike a mountain unless I know the elevation gain, I will never write an article unless I know the word count I’m aiming at. For this column, I always try to write somewhere between 500 and 950 words. Having this firm measurement makes writing easier because when I attack the job, I immediately understand — almost intuitively — whether my topic is going to be too big or too small. This understanding will come to you, too, with practice.

If my topic is too big (for example: “description”), I simply focus on a smaller part of it (“details” as I did last week.)  Or, I might turn it into a two-part series. If my topic is too small, I’ll likely do several mindmaps to try to flesh out a more productive angle. In short, I’m the Goldilocks of the writing world. I want my topic to be just the right size!

Bottom line? You should never agree to write anything unless you have a word count. If your boss won’t give you one, then give it to yourself. (It doesn’t even matter if the count is arbitrary. Mainly, you need to have a goal.)

If you’re working on a big project, such as a very long report, or a book, doing the math becomes even more urgent. First, it helps to know that the typical word count for a book is 80,000 words. (Obviously, though, there are huge variations here. Think of the difference between Gone With the Wind and A Christmas Carol.) If you want to be more precise, find a book that’s a length you like and count the number of words on ONE page. Multiply that by the total number of pages in the book and you’ll have a much more specific word count goal.

Then, figure out how much time you’re prepared to devote to writing your book per day. I strongly suggest you suppress your ambition and depend on no more than 30 minutes each day, five days a week. Next, you need to calculate how many words you can push out in this time. If you figure you can produce 325 words per day — the length of a typical email — that means you can finish a rough draft of a book in a year. (I’m assuming you’ll take off at least two weeks for holidays. 50 weeks x five days = 250 days. 250 days x 325 words = 81,250 words. Voila, your book!)

I like approaching big scary goals, like writing a book, using simple arithmetic. The  calculations make it perfectly clear that just about anyone can write a book without devoting their entire life to the project or becoming a hermit.

Did you know you are capable of writing a book?!!   

Finally, there’s one more way in which I like to use numbers and that is to measure readability. Others may not take the trouble to count your words but if many of your sentences are super long (say longer than 40 words), readers will likely find your writing hard and confusing and they’ll stop.

The best way to do this kind of math is by giving the job to your computer. If you’re using MS Word, just enable the readability statistics (check your Help menu for instructions) or go to my favourite readability website  and paste your text into the box. You should aim for an average sentence length of 14-18 words. But note I’m saying  AVERAGE. This means that some of your sentences can — and should — be much longer while others should be much shorter.

Even I can manage this sort of grade 3 math and I think you can too. After all, you don’t want to be like one of these Miss USA contestants, do you?  (Actually, these are actors, putting on a show.)